Frankenstein - Monsters Essential Collection Blu-ray Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 10, 2012 at 8:44 AM

  • Movies review


    Frankenstein - Monsters Essential Collection Blu-ray Review
    SRP: £49.99


    Frankenstein has been reborn in hi-definition, its iconic imagery now benefitting from a careful and attentive and, most importantly, a respectful restoration that has been transferred to Blu-ray via an AVC encode. The often startlingly detailed print appears 1.33:1 and with a picture whose all-important contrast now yields darker, deeper blacks and cleaner, more vivid whites, and with a more appreciable blend of the shades between the two extremes. Whites don't bloom and sparks and flames retain an inner core that was previously blurred out. There is no question about this being the very best that James Whale’s 1931 film has looked since its debut. Many would even go as far as to say that this may even look better.

    The image stable and strong at nearly all times. There is possibly only one frame-jump that is noticeable, and that, in itself, is nothing short of miraculous. Waverings and discolouration are par for the course, but they seem far more toned-down and much less intrusive than ever before. Actual print damage remains, but the restorative treatment – presumably a wet-scan like Dracula – has painstakingly removed evidence of all but the most stubborn nicks and scratches, meaning that the image is now appears fresher, cleaner and far more consistently vibrant.

    Close-ups are startlingly good, with great detail on the character's faces - particularly Karloff, Colin Clive and Dwight Frye, all of whom have marvellous visages that are torn between paroxysm of grandeur, cruelty, madness and sorrow - and backgrounds now reveal a wealth of minutia, from the meters, gauges and generators that decorate the laboratory to the costumes and assorted paraphernalia of the revellers in the street party. We can study those crazy angles in the watchtower a lot more, and look for those painted-on and shadow-skewed corners. The subtleties of the makeup for the Monster – the stitches and the scarring – are also more interestingly resolved and clinical, and Karloff’s eyes are bestowed more clarity and, as a consequence, more dignity.

    The sides of the image can still sometimes appear quite softened and blurred, though, giving a very slight fishbowl effect to the picture on a couple of occasions, but this is down to the source photography. Whatever deterioration had previously tainted the black levels and seen them veer more towards murky grey has been effectively repaired. I’ve never seen them look so deep and so natural. No detail is smothered by the shadows, and the image often looks sensational with the depth and atmosphere that has now been gained. There is even a much greater level of depth afforded the image. The interiors of the watchtower and the baronial estate provide deep stretches of corridors and halls and rooms, and weirdly expressionist gothic architecture. The big mountainside sets have a grander aspect and more dimensionality – still patently man-made, but height and scale are more vividly pronounced with the greater resolution. But look at the real exteriors that we see out beyond the lake in which little Maria is drowned – the distant shore and the hills stretched out beyond. These elements have never looked so clear or so detailed before. This really adds spacious contrast to the gloomy insides of the rocky edifice of the watchtower.

    Well, the problem with this added clarity and definition is that those majestic painted backgrounds – hung like vast curtains behind the hillside sets of the windmill and the cemetery – now reveal those seams, folds and creases all-too readily. I am normally the most forgiving when it comes to such vintage set-dressing and special FX, but I have to say that on this particular occasion, when savouring the otherwise faultless upgrade, I was inevitably drawn out of the film during these sequences because of these fake backdrops. I’ve always admired the creativity of it and the historical relevance of such techniques, and I’m certainly used to seeing such things in this and many other films from the period, so I’m somewhat surprised that seeing them here bothered me now.

    But, that’s just me.

    Frankensteinnow looks revelatory on Blu. A fine achievement.

    Frankenstein - Monsters Essential Collection Picture


    Coming to Blu-ray with a DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track, Frankenstein is a pure sturm-and-drang experience of lightning bolts, crashing bursts of thunder and crackling sparks of electricity. There is gaiety and frivolity during the village festival, and there is the other end of the spectrum when the mob surges after the Monster with babbling fury. It is profoundly limited, as you would expect, yet still suffused with detail and energy.

    Obviously the bass elements sound a touch awkward, with large crashing impacts and clodhopping footsteps pounding over wooden boards and stone floors with a strangely contained stage-bound quality. But the thunder now has a greater depth and zeal, really rumbling through the limited soundstage and becoming one of the key elements during that pivotal “birth” sequence. Alongside this force of angered nature, we have the sharp crackling of the electrical circuits, the snap and buzz of sizzling voltage. Where once these effects became a mushy cacophony, the storm and arcing power remain as two distinct entities, crisp, evocative and, fittingly, alive.

    You can argue back and forth about the quality of the dialogue reproduction, but this is vintage fare and the track caters for every sentence and every word as it was recorded. Van Sloan’s vocals usually suffer the most, partly to do with the understated manner with which he delivers them, but there is nothing amiss here, and all of his sneering arrogance is captured. No dialogue, from the clipped patter of Clive to the bluff ‘n’ bluster of his father, is missed or drowned beneath crackles or hiss, and no elements of volume are noticeably dropped. The audio has been restored and cleaned-up to remove as much snap, crackle and pop from the original elements as possible without causing detriment to the vintage ambience of the film.

    This is another sterling effort from Universal’s engineers in a boxset that is filled with frequently quite stunning work.

    Frankenstein - Monsters Essential Collection Sound


    These are the same extras that appeared on the 75th Anniversary Edition of Frankenstein.

    We have two chat tracks and a Monster Pop-up Trivia Track to run alongside the movie. The first commentary is from esteemed and enthusiastic film historian Rudy Behlmer and, whilst fact-packed, in-depth and comprehensive, feels a little dry. Behlmer knows his stuff, of that there is no doubt - but he lacks the spark to keep the listener constantly engaged. I found it easier to listen to in little sections, rather than a full-on experience. The second commentary track, from Sir Christopher Frayling, is much, much better. If you read my reviews for The Magnificent Seven or The Innocents, you may remember how much I loved listening to Frayling's clever, witty and insightful dissection of the films, effortlessly managing to be educational and entertaining at the same time. He had already covered the Frankenstein story in his brilliant TV series The Birth Of Horror some years ago, but his passion, knowledge and considered use of opinion here is a terrific extension of that work.
    Karloff: The Gentle Giant runs for around 37 mins. This is gem of a documentary featuring input from authors, historians, screenwriters and a director, to two. Among the participants to discuss the career of Boris Karloff are Sir Christopher Frayling, Kim Newman, Stephen Jones, Pete Atkins, Joe Dante and horror writer, and neighbour of mine, Ramsey Campbell. The versatile character actor's success as the Monster transformed him overnight from gangster heavy into Karloff The Uncanny, and his many wonderful performances are chronicled with respect, admiration and some sly humour. It's not as in-depth about his many, many other classic roles, but with copious relevant clips and stills, this doc does make a fair overview of horror's greatest poster boy.
    “These movies superseded their literary sources and became something else ... they became a myth,” says Sir Christopher Frayling, and I can't agree more.
    Next up is Universal Horror, which is a very entertaining look at the history of the famous studio, paying particular attention to its Golden Era of chillers. Running for a satisfying 95 mins, the documentary is narrated by Kenneth Brannagh - no stranger to Frankenstein, himself - and contains many wonderful interviews from the likes of film historian and author David J. Skal, Rudy Behlmer, Karloff's daughter Sara, author Ray Bradbury and actors James Karen and Gloria Stuart, who was so gorgeous when she starred opposite Karloff in Whale's The Old Dark House (reviewed separately). With an amazing amount of clips from their own movies and those that inspired their directors - The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu prominently - we are also treated to many stills from behind the scenes and a vast assortment of anecdotes. Universal's key producers and studio heads are covered in detail and the influence of their classic output during this period is discussed with respect and high regard by all concerned. It is nice the way that the participants convey their memories of first seeing these films and the profound effect the experiences had upon them. An excellent documentary that only comes undone with the fact that it has no archived interviews with the big hitters themselves, people like James Whale, Karloff and that other Titan Of Terror, Bela Lugosi - although they are quoted often.
    The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made A Monster is another fairly meaty documentary (around 45 mins) that, as the title implies, focuses on the transformation of William Henry Pratt from bit-parting heavy in gangster flicks to Boris Karloff, the undisputed King of Horror and his string of performances portraying Frankenstein's creation. Hosted by David J. Skal, posing alongside an awesome life-size replica of the Monster, this features input from makeup supremo Rick (American Werewolf) Baker, among others, who provides a great viewpoint from a man who was so clearly influenced by the amazing results that Jack P. Pierce achieved all those years ago. It is also nice to see the little test reel of colour footage from Son Of Frankenstein depicting the Monster menacing his real creator, Pierce, in a bit of vintage fun. Great to actually see his ghoulish green skin - something that the black and white films sadly denied us. Inevitably, some of the same ground is covered in Universal Horror, but this is still another excellent feature that is worth returning to.
    The Frankenstein Archives is a marvellous collection of posters - including the bizarre one that depicts a giant-sized, tousled-haired Monster with laser beams coming out of his eyes that was produced when Bela Lugosi was still being considered for the part. Running for 9.23 mins this little feature then spins out the entire movie for us via scene-by-scene stills, all set to the original source music, dialogue and effects. Nicely done.
    Boo! A Short Film is 9.30 mins of vintage oddball narration detailing how to obtain the perfect nightmare. Incorporating a lot of clips from Nosferatu, Frankenstein and The Cat And The Canary, this is seriously of the one-watch-only variety.
    Then we get the wonderful original theatrical trailer for Frankenstein, which runs for 1.41 mins, as well as trailers for other entries in the series.
    Additionally, the Monster Essential Collection contains Art Cards and a great little Monster booklet filled with lavish illustrations and trivia.
    An excellent package.

    Frankenstein - Monsters Essential Collection Extras


    Well, the simple fact is that Frankenstein is an absolute classic, a true landmark motion picture that set the tone for the visual style and feel of the horror film as a distinct and recognisable genre in its own right. Often criticised for his overtly-theatrical style and static camera, I hope I have pleaded the case for what is, in actuality, James Whale's marvellously cinematic endeavour to bring gothic suspense to the masses. He surpassed himself with his own sequel, Bride Of Frankenstein and made Karloff much more frightening in The Old Dark House, but this remarkably effective chiller broke the ground that Tod Browning's Dracula only tentatively prodded. Boris Karloff snarled and lurched his way into the collective consciousness with his standout performance of the Monster, and a new era of imaginative cinema was born Even today, the movie has an audaciously up-front theme and a tremendous sense of atmosphere that, coupled with set-pieces that are stamped indelibly upon our culture, create an iconic masterpiece that has proudly made the leap to high-definition.

    Universal’s Blu-ray presentation is exemplary, the AV transfer energising the old print with fabulous shadows, detail and texture, and certainly the cleanest-sounding audio that it has ever enjoyed. The extras are a fine and reverent bunch, capped-off with a couple of terrific chat-tracks. Nothing new added to the pot, but thankfully nothing taken away.

    Frankenstein is one of the big hitters in the Essential Collection, and a true testament to the imagination of these early genre pioneers. And thanks to this hi-def presentation, the Monster lives again!

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £49.99

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